At first nothing happened, but something told Elizabeth that her mother’s ring was more than an heirloom. The weight of it on her finger felt different somehow, and it tingled on her skin. It tingled, and then it burned, and she saw that it was glowing with silver-white light.
“Mother,” she breathed, staring at the ring. “It’s real.”
Words entered her head, and then her ears; a soft voice was speaking to her. “Call upon me,” it said. “I will render what aid I can.”
“Mother,” Elizabeth said again, and struggled to sit up.
The fire blazed higher, and turned bright blue. Sparks shot out of the fireplace and skidded across the floor, followed by a score or more of yellow lights that floated up out of the flames one by one. The demon turned its attention to these lights; its grip on Jennings’ throat relaxed. Jennings seized this opportunity to wrench himself away.
“Elizabeth!” he cried, his voice hoarse. He stumbled toward her.
She held up her hand, pointing to the lights. “Look!” Her eyes were wide with wonder. “Look at all of them!”
Jennings turned, and what he saw left him dumbfounded. The yellow lights had become more substantial, taking on the shape of people. He felt their presence in his heart – the familiar sensation in his chest, compounded a hundred times – and he fell back, winded.
Each light was a spirit. Each face was little more than vague wisps of features and shadows, but Jennings recognized them as though he had always known them – they were the spirits who had spoken to him through the slate. As Jennings watched, a dozen more lights burst out of the fire, and they too transformed into the people he had only ever encountered with his emotions.
The cluster of lights converged on the demon, surrounding it and resolving into translucent beings. For its part, the demon stood as still as a statue, its face impassive, its head moving imperceptibly as its eyes scanned the circle of ghosts around it. It seemed to waiting for something.
The ghosts closed in until their shoulders touched; in a moment, they had formed a solid glowing band that obscured the demon from the Jennings’ sight.
Delacourt had wasted precious moments goggling at the lights. He stood now, and stumbled backward. “What is this?” he asked, not knowing if the spirits belonged to his demon or not. “What is happening?”
The demon peered at Delacourt over the heads of the ghosts. In a rasping voice that put a dagger of fear and revulsion into Elizabeth’s heart, it answered its master: “They will try to prevent me.”
Delacourt stared bewildered at it. “Well, prevent them!” he commanded, frowning.
The demon looked away from Delacourt and again surveyed the ghosts. It gave no response to Cedric, but its hands lifted, almost as though it were prepared to surrender. The fire changed from blue to red, and surged so high that the flames touched the mantel. The air around the demon shimmered, and Jennings was assailed with the notion that the ghosts girded themselves against some sort of attack.
By now Elizabeth had come to her feet, and was standing beside Jennings. “What are they?” she murmured, her hand reaching out for Jennings’. “They are not demons?”
“No,” Jennings replied, shaking his head without looking at Elizabeth. His attention was fixed on the glowing circle, and the demon inside it. “They are the spirits from the slate.”
Elizabeth nodded in understanding. “Of course,” she said, squeezing Jennings’ hand. “They have come in answer to the ring.” They had come at her mother’s request.
The demon’s hands began to tremble, or rather, their motions disturbed the atmosphere, and caused the eyes to tremble as they attempted to watch. The ghost-circle tightened, so that their human shapes dissolved together into a fog with hints of limbs and heads dotted throughout it. Their yellow light intensified, but the demon’s hands were somehow disrupting the inner borders of the circle, and Jennings could sense the spirits’ struggles to stay in formation.
The fire raged blue again.
A woman stood on the hearth; she was as transparent and amorphous as the other spirits, but where they shone yellow, she radiated white. Her eyes blazed, and she glared at the demon for a brief second before launching herself toward it.
Its hands lifted to stop her, but it was driven back. The strange trembling of the air ceased, and from every point of contact between the spirit and the demon, black and red sparks flew out in all directions. The ghost-circle grew stronger; its yellow light began to pulse bright gold. The demon seemed unwilling or unable to leave the circle; it jerked away from the spirits’ touch as though it burned.
Delacourt had observed this display with incredulity, but now, realizing that he would likely be obliged to handle matters on his own, he turned on Elizabeth. He noted the glowing ring on her finger, and frowned at it curiously.
“This is your doing,” he said, his expression hovering between amusement and irritation. “Your mother tainted my ring! I cannot imagine how.” He stalked toward Elizabeth, who quickly stepped backward, covering her mother’s ring with her other hand.
“You?” she cried. “You cannot imagine how? You have used forces of dark magic for a hundred years, but you cannot imagine that good people can do the same?” Her retreat from Cedric ended when she bumped into the study wall. “All the spirits Christopher has helped – they will stop you!”
Delacourt considered her words. “What I cannot imagine,” he said. “Is how your mother’s abilities escaped my attention. I could easily have chosen her instead. But perhaps she would only have defied me.” He smiled condescendingly. “The two of you are very much alike, after all.” He stood inches from her, and brought his face so close to hers that his nose was almost touching hers. “But her little army can’t truly hurt my demon, and even if it could, I don’t really need him to get rid of you.”
Jennings appeared behind Delacourt, and slammed the butt of the blunderbuss into the side of Cedric’s head. Cedric dropped to the floor.
“And I don’t need spirits,” Jennings said. “To get rid of you.”
Cedric’s head was bleeding, but he looked up at Jennings with a taunting grin. “I will heal from all your hurts, Jennings,” he said, staggering to his feet. “But you will not recover so easily.” He lunged forward and grabbed the blunderbuss; the two men stumbled across the study, fighting for control of the gun.
Beside them, the demon still stood in the center of the circle. The white spirit had disappeared, but the other spirits remained, linked arm-in-arm and shoring up all their strength to keep the demon contained. It spun one way and then the other, its hands lifted to attack, but despite any weakness it may have perceived or attempted to create, it was unable to breach the barrier. Time and again, it charged the circle, only to be thrown back into the center.
Elizabeth gaped first at the circle of spirits, and then at her husband wrestling with Delacourt. The demon was immortal; how would these spirits of the dead be able to hurt it? It seemed more likely that they would only be able to confine it for a small while, and if there was any hope that they could return the demon to the netherworld, there was surely no way for them – or for anyone – to keep the demon there. As long as Cedric Delacourt held sway over this demon, it would no doubt stay in this world, performing all the wretched deeds that Delacourt carved out for it.
Elizabeth glared at Delacourt in fury. All that she had suffered had been at his hands! But how could he be stopped? He was much stronger than she, and, as he himself had noted, his injuries would heal in a trice. What sort of weapon could possibly affect a man who had been rendered immortal? – especially now that Jennings was locked in combat with him: any sustained attack on Cedric would also be an attack on her husband.
“Mother,” she called out. “Please! I don’t know what to do!”
The white spirit, who had a moment before abandoned her assault on the demon, reappeared now inside the chalk circle; she rose up through the floor to stand floating and translucent, surrounded by the ring of glowing runes. “Elizabeth,” she said, her words more like a thought in Elizabeth’s head than an actual voice. The spirit’s arms reached out for her.
“Mother,” Elizabeth murmured, and stepped forward. Her feet crossed the runes, and she felt the spirit’s arms closing around her. There was a strong smell of roses, and a warmth that Elizabeth had never felt, as though her very soul were being pulled into a loving embrace.
“Elizabeth,” the spirit – Elizabeth’s mother – said again. “Our efforts will falter.” She put her ghostly hands on either side of Elizabeth’s face. “Our strength is built on the foundation of Jonathan’s magic, and this rune-spell will wane any moment. Lizzie, you must take your birthright.”
Elizabeth frowned in confusion. “What do you mean? What am I to do?”
Her mother smiled. “My sweet girl,” she said. “You can take Isabelle’s place, and command the demon.”
Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide. Of course, she thought. She stared unblinking at her mother’s ghost, then slowly, as though she were in a dream, she bent down and picked up the dagger that Cedric had dropped. Across from her, she saw Delacourt and Jennings still grappling with one another; beside her, the light of the ghost-circle had all but vanished, and only the very slightest remnants of the spirits remained. Their linked arms were fast becoming invisible mist, and the demon’s attempts to break the circle were meeting with less and less resistance.
Elizabeth stood and looked once more at her mother. Her mother nodded, and Elizabeth nodded back. She was rather terrified at what she was about to do, but there was nothing for it – it was this course of action or, she feared, all would be lost. She raised the dagger in one hand and, after a pause during which she clenched the dagger tightly in her shaking hand, she brought the blade down into the palm of her other hand, driving its point through her flesh. The pain shocked her; she cried out, and jerked the dagger back.
Her blood welled up from the wound and dripped onto the floor.
The runes glowed brightly once more, and the fireplace exploded into aggressive flames. The fire that had spread to the mantel and walls now surged with lightning speed, until half of the study was engulfed. Smoke began to fill the room, and both Cedric and Jennings, taken by surprise, fell away from one another and stumbled quickly back from the fire.
Elizabeth wasted no time on incredulity. “Demon!” she shouted. “Heed me!”
The demon turned to her, his expression quizzical and – although his visage was too strange to be sure – somewhat amused. He stopped rushing the ghost-circle, and the spirits themselves released their grip on each other. The circle broke, and the demon was allowed to walk toward Elizabeth.
“Lizzie!” Jennings cried, but Elizabeth did not answer. Instead she squared her shoulders, and, bringing every conceivable shred of bravery to bear, she faced the demon.
What should she do? she wondered. What sort of birthright had she taken on? What had been her mother’s plan? It was too late now to ask her, for the demon stood scarcely two feet away. He was clearly awaiting instructions. What on earth was she supposed to tell him to do?
Well, she thought. What do I want him to do?
She held her bleeding hand out to the demon, who gazed at it for a few seconds before extending his own. The skin was somehow both scratchy and clammy at the same time, and it was with more revulsion than she had ever felt that Elizabeth took the demon’s hand in her own, and pressed her blood into its palm.
“I release you from your bargain with my family,” she said.
“No!” Cedric screamed, lunging forward in panic. Jennings grabbed at him, dragging him to his knees.
Both Elizabeth and the demon noted Cedric coldly. “Demon,” Elizabeth said, turning her attention once more to the creature whose clawed hand still rested almost amiably in her own. “Take this man who has contracted with you, to whatever judgment he faces. Release the souls of my family, and do not return to this world, or torment any of us any further. In this way, our bargain will be forever ended.”
The demon tilted its head to the side. Its voice emerged from its mouth as rancid vapours might escape from a festering grave. “As you wish,” it said, and its eyes glinted with what Elizabeth could only describe as humour.
“No!” Cedric bellowed again. He kicked away from Jennings and clambered to his feet, but his knees suddenly failed him, and he fell again. It soon became clear that he was labouring, not only to stand, but even to breathe, and his countenance changed rapidly from outrage to anxiety to dread. “What –?” he gasped, sinking down onto his elbows. “What’s happening?”
“Our bargain,” the demon announced in a gravelly monotone. “Was thirteen deaths in exchange for immortality for you and your bride, for the duration of our bargain.”
“I gave them!” Cedric protested. His skin was turning colours; his breath wheezed in and out with increasing difficulty. “I gave all thirteen!”
“And I gave immortality,” the demon replied impassively. “For the duration of our bargain – one hundred fourteen years.”
Cedric collapsed entirely. “No,” he murmured, his words inaudible over the roar of the fire. “That’s not … not …” His movements ceased, and his skin grew instantly mottled grey. It wrinkled into blackening parchment that cracked and broke; powder escaped from each fissure, and an oozing yellow slime that flowed out to become a dank puddle underneath Delacourt’s shrinking corpse.
“Our bargain is ended,” the demon said, and let go of Elizabeth’s hand. It turned then without any other word or glance, walked unscathed through the spreading flames, and disappeared into the red bowels of the fireplace.
The mist that comprised all that was left of the spirits coalesced around the Jennings. Elizabeth’s mother, her form nearly dissolved, manifested just enough to smile at her daughter. “You must leave,” she said. “The house will be consumed by both fire and magic. The rain cannot save it.”
As if to punctuate her words, the fire raced across the ceiling of the study and dripped down onto the books and furniture. The smoke was now so thick that it burned Elizabeth’s eyes and lungs.
“We have to go, Lizzie,” Jennings said, putting his arms around his wife.
Coughing, the Jennings hurried from the study and into the kitchen. There they found the servants slowly rousing from their induced sleep. “We have to go!” Jennings told them, and Elizabeth bustled from one of them to the other, pushing them out of their chairs and toward the back door. They were groggy and disoriented, but they had recovered enough to stagger with the Jennings out into the yard.
“What’s happening?” a girl asked in consternation. “Where’s Miss Isabelle?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Isabelle is already lost.”
Behind her, the lake house had transformed into a mountain of fire. As Elizabeth’s mother had warned, the driving rain had no effect on the conflagration; whatever magic Cedric Delacourt had commanded had been funneled into the frame of the house, and into this final cleansing act.
The Jennings and the servants rushed to the far side of the stables, and watched in horror and fascination as the lake house turned into ash.
Despite the steady rain that fell through the night, the fire raged for hours, until nothing was left but the chimneys. It smoldered for many more hours after that, and it was afternoon before the bodies of Charlotte Carlisle, Miss Isabelle Fetherston, and Sir James could be brought out.
The servants and many others from the nearby village discussed amongst themselves that both the fire and the smoke possessed a strange colour and odour, as though fueled by something well outside the usual. They also noted that the body especially of Sir James had been reduced nearly to charred bones, so that he was completely unrecognizable; the two ladies were far less assaulted by the flames, and some who had known Sir James and his acidic personality saw this discrepancy as an indication of his character being suitably brought to task by a higher power.
Of Cedric Delacourt and Edmond Fitzhugh there was no sign. Only Delacourt’s and Sir James’ rigs were on the property, leading people to speculate that Delacourt had run off with Ned in Ned’s carriage, but no one, for all their conversations over the next few days, could offer a reasonable motive for such an amiable man as Delacourt to be capable of murder. If it was Sir James’ fortune he was after, then he was the most foolish of men, for now any attempt on his part to claim his inheritance would result in his arrest. People were equally shocked at Fitzhugh’s role, for his reputation was solid and good, and the notion that he had had anything to do with this horrid business was seen as almost incomprehensible. But there it was: both men were gone without a trace, and the servants were only too happy to describe Delacourt’s strange behaviour earlier in the evening.
“He insisted that we drink with him,” the cook explained with a cluck of her tongue. “All of us, even the men in the stable. He said it was part of a grand celebration, and he would not rest until we had taken wine. I had wanted to make a supper for our guests – Mr. Fitzhugh and Sir James were expected at any moment – but Mr. Delacourt would have none of it, and I felt helpless to remonstrate with him.” She clucked her tongue again. “I don’t remember at all after that until Mrs. Jennings roused me and took me from the house.” For this she was most grateful to Mrs. Jennings, and had nothing but praise for her.
Indeed, everyone spoke of Mrs. Jennings with a respect bordering on reverence. Word of her alleged premonition had spread quickly, and it was clear from her mad dash from Northampton that she had done everything within her power to avert calamity. The injuries Delacourt had given her were evident upon her, yet she comported herself with a graceful equanimity that was rightly perceived as the epitome of strength of character. In truth, she had been more concerned for Mr. Jennings’ injuries, and for the health and safety of the servants. She said little to anyone, other than to thank them for condoling with her on her grievous loss, and to answer their flabbergasted questions as to Delacourt’s possible motive with the simple suggestion that her cousin seemed to have fallen onto the path of dark magic and had viewed the murders as some sort of sacrifice to a dire power.
Such a thing was unheard of, and intriguing enough to keep people talking; soon, gossip had created an image of Delacourt and Fitzhugh that was, surprisingly, very close to the truth that the Jennings had felt it prudent to keep to themselves.
The Jennings put up at the inn down the road from the lake house, or rather from the eerie skeleton of the lake house, and stayed there some days recovering from – as the locals came to call it – the Tragedy. Elizabeth decided wisely to sell the lake house property, and to see the servants safely employed elsewhere. She could not imagine ever wanting to see the place again.
Her letter to Mrs. Fetherston had filled her with dread; she was sure that Isabelle’s mother would blame her for being unable to save her daughter. But in the end, Mrs. Fetherston travelled to the lake house herself, and shared her grief with Elizabeth, whom she regarded with deep gratitude for being, as she said, “the only one of Isabelle’s acquaintance who cared enough for her to risk life and limb in such a way, and to put personal differences aside to try to save her.”
The two women spent a week together, and Mrs. Fetherston helped Elizabeth contact those who would need to deal with Sir James’ estate. “For I cannot want it, ma’am,” Elizabeth said emphatically. “I will take some portraits from it, I believe, and I will make sure the servants are well looked after, but I am certain that nothing is in that house that I would care to have.” She had, after some consideration, revealed to Mrs. Fetherston the whole truth of Delacourt’s identity, and it was therefore with real understanding that Mrs. Fetherston pulled Elizabeth into her arms, and told her that all would be handled however she wished, and that she need never be obliged even to walk past that part of town again.
“But you must promise to be my family, Lizzie,” she said, smiling through tears. “Especially now that I understand why Sir James became so cold, I regret abandoning you all those years ago.”
“How could you possibly know what he was?” Elizabeth asked her. “Even I did not know, and I lived in the same house with him all my life.” She returned Mrs. Fetherston’s embrace. “And I am most gratified and fortunate to call you family, ma’am,” she averred. “I only wish …” A tear ran down her cheek, and she brushed it away. “I wish I could have saved Isabelle, ma’am! I was his target, not she!”
“You saved your whole family, Lizzie,” Mrs. Fetherston told her gently. “Your actions removed a curse from us that had been so insidious in its evil that we did not even notice our sacrifices to it.” She too wiped away tears. “Of course I wish Isabelle was here. But it was Delacourt who killed her.” She took Elizabeth’s face in her hands and looked pointedly at her. “Don’t forget that, my pet. It was he.”
Elizabeth had difficulty heeding these words, but, after some days, she finally allowed that she had done her very best, and had been as resourceful as anyone could ask. It was true enough that she had ended the curse – no more women would be lost for the sake of one selfish man, or for any other reason. For the first time in over a hundred years, her family was safe.
And, at the end of it all, she had been given the opportunity to see her mother, to feel her mother’s arms around her and to see the love in her eyes. She had seen and heard a woman who, until that moment, had only been a character in Elizabeth’s imagination; who else could make such a claim? She could only count herself fortunate, and to see such an extraordinary occurrence as a sign of divine approbation. Both Jennings and Mrs. Fetherston concurred wholeheartedly with her in this, but it was not until she spoke with Perry that she relinquished her need to feel somehow culpable in Delacourt’s crimes.
Perry had been beside himself that he had not brought her to the lake house soon enough to save her father and stepmother; he allowed that the rain and mud were not under his control, and that he was obliged after the crash to focus on Tom, whose injuries were not severe but who needed to be tended to, but he still chided himself that he had not found a better road. Elizabeth would have none of this, and told him in no uncertain terms that he was in no way to blame for anything. “For you know, Perry,” she told him somberly. “No matter how strongly I believed that something bad would happen, I cannot think that any of us, not even Mr. Jennings, would have been able to predict such a disastrous outcome as that which awaited us at the lake house.” She impulsively reached out and patted his arm. “I am, in fact, monstrously relieved that Tom was not more badly hurt, and that you looked after him and made sure he was well. He will be all mended in a month! – and I had feared that my decision to journey in the rain had gotten him killed!”
She spent some time with Perry, relating to him her immense gratitude for all that he had done, and by the end of the conversation, he seemed willing to place blame solely on Mr. Delacourt. It was then that Elizabeth realized that, if she believed her own words to Perry, then she must follow them as well.
“Delacourt is the villain here,” she reminded herself, and was even able to appreciate that she had been spared from a great evil, not because of luck or even because of others’ fortitude, but because she herself had vanquished it.
She made her way to the little garden behind the inn. Jennings awaited her there; he was sitting on a low stone wall that separated the garden from the road. When he saw Elizabeth, he smiled broadly and held his hand out to her. “I thought you might find me here, my love,” he said. “It is a beautiful morning.”
“Indeed it is!” she said, smiling back at him. She took his hand and sat beside him on the wall. “I have just spoken with Perry,” she told him. “He was most concerned that somehow he had done something untoward. I hope I have dissuaded him from such a notion.”
Jennings chuckled. “It was all I could do,” he said. “To convince him that I was not upset with him. Between the unusual haste, the storm, the crash, Tom’s broken arm, and your running off on horseback in the middle of the night, poor Perry was sure I was going to execute him!” He shook his head. “But, as I told him more than once, he did exactly as he was supposed to do, and I would not have had it any other way.” He looked at her, his eyes twinkling. “I do not like to think what might have happened to me if you had not arrived when you did.”
She still smiled, but her eyes were serious. “I was only following your example,” she said. “I would have died weeks ago if not for you. You have saved me in every conceivable way.”
He raised her hand to his lips. “I was saved,” he argued. “From a wretched life without you.” He grinned, and added, “I am in awe of you, you know. I daresay you could move the course of a river if you put your mind to it, and so I told Perry, when he suggested he should have tried harder to stop you.”
Elizabeth, embarrassed by this praise, did not know what to say to it, and sat instead in silence for a moment, her hand cheerfully ensconced in her husband’s.
“I wonder,” she said at last. “What sort of man my real father was.”
“I am sure he would have loved you more than anything,” Jennings said.
“I have met my mother,” Elizabeth said. “Who has been gone these nineteen years. Perhaps somehow I will meet my father as well.” She leaned her head on Jennings’ shoulder. “After all that has happened, I begin to feel that anything is possible.”
Jennings gazed down at her, and squeezed her hand. “I believe that more every day, my love.” He kissed the top of her head. “More every day.”